• Issue
  • Nov 01, 2021

Choy Ka Fai: Dancing between Domains

Portrait of CHOY KA FAI. Photo by Katja Illner. Courtesy the artist. 

Choy Ka Fai’s recent research into the ritualistic movements of shamans has earned him the moniker “supernatural dance explorer.” In his January showcase with the Singapore Art Museum and August presentation at Berlin’s Kindl Centre for Contemporary Art were videos of shamans at work and a prototype for a futuristic video game based on a quest to reconnect with ancient gods. The Berlin-based artist’s fascination with how gestures in the physical realm activate tethers with spirits, and his endeavors to facilitate these connections through technological means, can be traced back to his early examinations of the ties between the immaterial and material—specifically, between the internet and real life.

The 2007 performance Drift Net was Choy’s first production for Singapore’s Theatre Works as the company’s associate director—a job he took three years after graduating with a video art diploma from Lasalle College of the Arts and then working as a producer for the performance art collective Kill Your Television, co-founded by artists Rizman Putra, Aaron Kao, and Jeremy Sharma. The 2005 conviction of two Singaporean men for publishing anti- Muslim comments on their blogs had led Choy to become curious about the state’s policing of the internet, and he set out to trace the porous divide between cyberspace and offline sociopolitical conditions. For the performance, Choy strapped muscle sensors to Putra, who played a protagonist exploring the blogosphere as a cache of memories that veer into fiction and ultimately alter the character’s beliefs and reality. With the aid of polymathic artist- coder Daito Manabe, Putra’s movements were converted into data that controlled the stage’s lights and video projections. At the work’s climax, Putra shot up into a relevé, his fists punching the air as the screens went blank, the stage’s magenta lights blinked in a furor, and the accompanying live music reached a crescendo. The pioneering work expanded the possibilities of new media in dance and sharpened perceptions of how virtual and real-life realms are fundamentally intertwined.

Two years later, in a state of creative fatigue, Choy decided to enroll in the design interactions program at London’s Royal College of Art. As he sheepishly explained in our conversation, unlike his classmates, he produced just one work in the two years, for which he returned to movement-based data. Choy began with archival footage of the performance A Summer Storm (1973) by Tatsumi Hijikata— Butoh co-founder and innovator of the grotesque style Ankoku Butoh, or “Dance of Utter Darkness”—and, with the help once more of Manabe, he digitized the sequence of movements, encoding them in 0s and 1s, which he fed into his body as electric signals. The video Eternal Summer Storm (2010) shows Choy with wires taped to his arm that jerks sporadically, mirroring Hijikata’s gestures and effectively transforming his own body into a living repository of movement memory.

If a dancer’s gesticulations can be transferred via data to another body, how much of a performance’s expressive and emotive qualities are real? Does a feeling animate the movement or vice versa? These were the questions that spurred Choy’s next projects, which broadened his investigations into the connections between the material and immaterial, corpus and anima. For the performance-lecture Dance Fiction (2012), he used wires and electric pulses to transmit to a dancer iconic works of contemporary choreography such as Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A (1978), Pina Bausch’s Cafe Müller (1978), and Lin Hwai Min’s Cursive II (2006), while he narrated his technical process. Artist and writer Dorothy Lam, who attended an iteration of the work at Berlin’s Tanzhaus, described the manipulations of the dancer’s body by external force as “both repulsive and attractive.” She wondered whether in this state, “the mind is then able to wander off beyond the body, but when the body is experiencing pain or contortion, the mind would too.” Choy relayed that this systematic analysis stems from his love of watching contemporary dance and the need to find a way to decipher the movements as an untrained choreographer who didn’t always understand the jargon and thought- processes of the performance world. His dissective methodology and questions— such as, “If Marina Abramović asks you to spend hours counting rice, what does it do to your brain?”—extended to The Choreography of Things (2014), where he used an EEG headset to track the correlation between the movements and neural activity of individuals while they dance.

CHOY KA FAI, Postcolonial Spirit, 2021, documentation of performance at HAU Hebbel am Ufer, Berlin, 2021: 90 min. Photo by Dieter Hartwig. Courtesy the artist. 

Concurrently, Choy took an anthropological approach to investigating what performers experience in their minds. For the documentary video series Soft Machine (2012–15), he interviewed 88 performers across Asia. During this process, he was introduced by a folk dancer in West Papua to the intersection between movements and customs such as shamanic rituals. Choy’s initial request to record the brainwaves of a shaman as he contacted spirits was denied. However, this encounter brought Choy to try non-scientific methods in his work. Asking “what is humanly impossible and ghostly possible,” he created Unbearable Darkness (2018). In preparation for the work, which he intended as the “mother of all recreations” for Hijikata’s choreography, he went back to the source— the mind and spirit of the deceased Hijikata, and reached out to the Butoh master in a shaman-facilitated séance. The results of this “interview,” which touched on Hijikata’s choreographic process, the regrets he had, and what he thought the future of Butoh would be like, cumulated in Choy’s reprisals of Hijikata’s key pieces on stage, while motion-capture technologies cast the gestures onto projected avatars of Hijikata at different ages. Choy thought of the glitches in the live-generated animation as interference from Hijikata’s ghost.

This exploration fueled Choy’s fascination with the spirit realm and his burgeoning curiosity with how technology could channel souls. “In the making of Unbearable Darkness, I experienced a lot of bad luck. I thought I had come too close to the underworld and darkness, and so I decided to turn to the light and went in search of deities,” he told me. Thus he started the research project Cosmic Wander (2019– ), which like Soft Machine, has an anthropological bent, as Choy interviews shamans across Asia, from Siberia to Indonesia. Though the pandemic has halted Choy’s on-the-ground research, it has also inspired him to fashion Cosmic Wander into a “conceptual travel agency” that creates “one-of-a-kind expeditions into different realms of spirituality and transcendence.” Advertised on the agency’s website is an upcoming VR experience of Siberian shamanism.

Postcolonial Spirits (2021) is the latest manifestation of Cosmic Wander, and continues the cybernetic methods of Unbearable Darkness. The performance centers on Indonesian Dolalak trance- dances, which emerged in the 1930s and incorporates traditional Javanese moves, costumes based on Dutch soldier uniforms, Islamic poems, and satirical songs about colonizers, including contemporary lyrical spinoffs lampooning corporate gentrifiers. On stage at Berlin’s HAU Hebbel am Ufer theater, where the piece premiered in August, a Dutch dancer performed the Dolalak choreography that he had learned from a Javanese maestro, who starred alongside him in a projected live feed. In using telepresence to conjoin the formerly colonized with the descendants of the colonizers as a “critical voice from the people against the power,” and thus closing “an ancestral loop,” Choy, it could be said, is taking on the role of a shaman himself.